- Ravi Ubha, Tennis
- 0 Shares
Love it or hate it, the clay-court season is back.
Estoril, Valencia and Houston hosted smaller events last week, with this week's Monte Carlos Masters, housed at the Monte Carlo Country Club perched idyllically by the Mediterranean, the true men's curtain-raiser.
For the fourth straight year, Roger Federer, coach Jose Higueras in tow, seeks to complete his Grand Slam collection at the French Open, and bulging Spaniard Rafael Nadal tries to become the first man since Bjorn Borg to win four titles in a row in Paris. The rest of the field, led by Novak Djokovic, will try to join the fun.
Here are five burning questions ahead of the French, which begins in just more than a month.
Is this Federer's last real chance to win at Roland Garros?
It depends who you ask.
John McEnroe, agonizingly deprived of the French Open title in 1984 when he blew a two-set lead in the final to Ivan Lendl, thinks so, saying last May that the Swiss would find it "even harder'' from 2009 onwards.
Two-time French Open champion Jim Courier, though, disagrees "entirely,'' as does McEnroe's former doubles partner, Peter Fleming. Kind of.
Fleming thought Pete Sampras would conquer the Parisian terre battue one day, but the 14-time Grand Slam winner made it to only one semifinal, meekly bowing out to Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov in 1996.
"I don't think I necessarily see it being such a short window,'' said the London-based Fleming, an analyst for Britain's Sky Sports. "I think the window is three or four years simply because Federer has taken such good care of himself physically and mentally. I think he has a bit more time than that, but I said the same thing about Pete and I was disappointed he never mustered more than that one challenge to win Paris. Roger is more at home on clay.''
Who knows, Federer's earlier-than-normal tournament defeats this season might be a blessing in disguise come the French Open, added two-time Grand Slam finalist Todd Martin.
"He hasn't quite expended himself that much due to the amount of matches he hasn't played relative to past years,'' Martin said.
Which players have a shot at beating Nadal?
The obvious pick, apart from Federer, is Novak Djokovic.
The supremely confident Serb has excelled on hard courts, reaching the U.S. Open final in September, going one better at the Australian Open in January and backing it up with a convincing display at the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in March, crushing Nadal along the way. Yet his Grand Slam breakthrough came at the French in 2006 when he made the quarterfinals, and his maiden semifinal at a major was at the same venue a year later.
Both times Nadal foiled him. Memorably two years ago, Djokovic retired in the third set versus the Mallorcan trailing by two sets, then pretty much declared, to Nadal's amusement, he was in control.
Much of the attention in Paris, of course, will center on Federer and Nadal, which could benefit Djokovic, Martin suggested.
"I think he's got one more slam in him where the pressure really isn't going to be on him, and I think it's the one coming up,'' he said. "It's a great position for him to be in. At this point, he can pawn it off as, 'I might be the third favorite behind these two guys.'"
David Nalbandian is dangerous -- if he can navigate past the first few rounds. David Ferrer has Nadal's number and Nikolay Davydenko finally topped Nadal, albeit on a hard court, in Miami. Davydenko could easily have been a two-time finalist in Paris by now, squandering great chances against Federer and Mariano Puerta in two semis.
"In a Slam, he hasn't shown he can get it done in the latter rounds,'' said ESPN analyst Jimmy Arias, a former French Open quarterfinalist.
Will Nadal be as dominant?
The next few weeks should give us a better indication, but one thing's for sure: The 21-year-old isn't his usual upbeat self. He complained about the clay-court schedule -- three Masters events are condensed into four weeks -- calling it "crazy" prior to Monte Carlo.
Then there's his health. More than a few pundits feel Nadal has slipped a notch physically. (Notice the strapping still below his knees?)
"This is the first year I have doubts, only because I don't think he's physically as strong as he was the last couple of years,'' Arias said when asked if Nadal would make it four straight at Roland Garros. "From what I've seen during the hard-court season, he's gotten tired, injured and he's breaking down.''
When Federer ended Nadal's 81-match winning streak on clay in last year's Hamburg Masters final, most put it down to fatigue, and Nadal rebounded in Paris.
Arias said Nadal might not get away with playing so many dirt events in the next month.
"It didn't affect him at the French last year, but I think it's dangerous for him now,'' he said.
Can the Americans do any worse in Paris?
That'd be difficult.
Nine exited in the opening round in 2007, marking the first time in the Open era that every American man entered in the draw at a Slam lost at the first hurdle.
Andy Roddick got a tough draw and went out to Russian Igor Andreev; serving machine Ivo Karlovic, who'd actually won his first title in Houston on clay, weeks earlier, toppled James Blake; and Diego Hartfield knocked off Robby Ginepri in five sets to complete the misery.
This season, all three are on a roll. Roddick has beaten Nadal, Djokovic and Federer; Blake, boosted by his performance in the Davis Cup final against Russia, has had a much better start to 2008 than 2007; and Ginepri, still being guided by Higueras, has risen almost 100 spots in the rankings in two months.
"I don't think it's ridiculous to think Blake or Roddick could have a good run,'' Arias said. "Roddick still has that serve and it's dangerous, and when he loses, he seems to lose tough matches. James obviously has the talent to win matches. Can he put it together and win match after match? Probably not. It'll be difficult, but if he has a favorable draw, he can win a couple of matches.''
Will the French have reason to cheer?
"All of France is waiting for a champion at Roland Garros,'' summed up the versatile Michael Llodra.
Llodra and 14 other Frenchmen ended last season in the top 100, so you can bet more than a few will find themselves in the third or fourth round. Gilles Simon prospers on clay, and the still nervy Paul-Henri Mathieu battled Nadal for five hours on center court two years ago.
The top two threats to end France's 25-year men's drought, though, seem to be Australian Open finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet. Tsonga, as noted by two-time Grand Slam finalist Cedric Pioline, has winner written all over him.
"His mental side is very strong,'' said Pioline, now the head of men's high performance at the French Tennis Federation. "He's able to play very good tennis in big moments and big matches.''
Sadly for Pioline and the rest of the nation, even if Tsonga doesn't require surgery for a knee injury and shows up in Paris, he'll be rusty. His game, too, is more suited to faster surfaces.
That leaves us with Gasquet. He continues to underachieve and, like compatriot Amelie Mauresmo, crumbles under the pressure at Roland Garros. With barely a whimper, he lost to Belgian Kristof Vliegen in the second round last year.
The forecast, then, is bleak.
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
5hMarc Stein and Tim MacMahon
2hMarc Stein and Calvin Watkins